Too Smart To Be Caught In A System: Barry Schwabsky’s Words for Art
Words for Art by Barry Schwabsky
Some of our best art critics (Clement Greenberg, Peter Schjeldahl) are short winded– they publish only essays. Barry Schwabsky belongs in their company. This book republishes his accounts of very diverse subjects: the Octobrist manifesto Art since 1900; the collected writings of Meyer Schapiro and E. H. Gombrich; and such well known commentators as Thierry de Duve, Boris Groys and Linda Nochlin. Generous even when highly critical, critical even when he is praising, Schwabsky is a master of concision. Schjeldahl, he writes, “dreams of the artist ‘as story-teller, as bard’,” failing to recognize that film directors “fill that bill . . . . If Schjeldahl really wanted to dwell on that kind of art he could have become a film critic” (p. 154). As for Michael Fried, “a willingness to strain credibility has always been part of (his) critical method. . . . He has always been aware that any truly productive interpretation must go beyond verifiable fact—that it is, in fact, a wager” (p. 136). Schwabsky certainly knows the theorizing, which, until recently, often dominated art world discourse, especially at Artforum where he has long been coeditor of international reviews. But whether because he is not an academic, or because he is a practicing poet, or just because he is too smart to allow himself to be caught in a system, he himself has mostly not theorized. The exception, the odd man out in this collection, is his immensely suggestive “A Benjaminian view of color,” which in just thirteen pages links Matisse, Frank Stella, Gary Hume and the marvelous Italian painter Maria Morganti. It is a virtuoso performance.
Because he’s not an art historian, Schwabsky is unafraid of making surprising ahistorical comparisons, as when he links Adolph Menzel’s “makeshift constructions” (Fried’s phrase) with the installations of Jessica Stockholder, “whose work is always based on careful observation of what, even arbitrarily, happens to be there in a particular situation” (p. 134). In a marvelous imaginative flight, he compares Giulio Romano’s frescoed scenes of collapsing rooms in Mantua to Chris Burden’s Sensation 1985),
an installation contrived so that each visitor, entering the gallery through a turnstile, places added pressure on its walls so that, if enough people had come to see it, the work would have destroyed its setting (p. 87)
I wish that I had said that—well, perhaps I will! And although Schwabsky’s not a philosopher, he is unafraid to tackle de Duve’s Kant after Duchamp, which, he nicely says, “uses philosophy brilliantly but often awkwardly” (p. 168). Jacques Derrida’s commentary on Meyer Schapiro’s account of Heidegger’s discussion van Gogh has often been discussed in comically solemn terms. Schwabsky cuts to the chase: “For all the philosopher’s concern to explicate the distinction between objects of use and the work of fine art in which truth is disclosed, he has in fact reduced the work to a merely useful prop for his text . . . ” (p. 64).
Is it perverse to praise a senior critic for his modesty? Perhaps not, not when Schwabsky’s exemplary modesty masks his interpretative will-to-power. “Scholarly attempts to form coherent methodologies,” he is describing Art Since 1900, “are fundamentally something else altogether: expressions of taste” (p. 15) And taste, he adds, “is always the fundamental thing.” This is the lesson I carry away from this book. At a time where attempts to generalize about contemporary art are foredoomed, art writers need to trust their taste, for ultimately that is all we have to go on. How, Schwabsky asks
Do conflicting views on the value of different kinds of artworks gel into a rough and shifting consensus about the boundaries of what will be considered art in the first place? (p. 211).
Words for Art assembles the materials, which any adequate answer to that crucial question will need to employ. Schjeldahl, it says, “can do things with words on which other critics can only look with wonder . . . ” (p. 147). That’s how I feel, often enough, about Schwabsky’s book, which for me inspires unenvious wonder.
Barry Schwabsky, Words for Art. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2013. ISBN 978-3-95679-002-7. 232 pages, €19.00